Anne-Marie Slaughter Defines Sovereignty Down (But She’s Sort of Right To Do So)

by Julian Ku

In her typically graceful and accessible style, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter has a series of posts at The Atlantic defending a redefinition of state sovereignty under international law (especially in the wake of Libya).  A taste of her thoughts can be seen in this graph.

So it is international law itself — or rather the governments that bring it into being — that is in the process of redefining the international definition of sovereignty (e.g. the conditions on which you can be a player in the international system) to include a responsibility to protect (R2P) their citizens. Trombly argues that this conception of sovereignty “essentially strips its value,” because the whole point of a sovereign is to protect individuals from each other, in return for which it can and must demand absolute obedience. In the R2P world, by contrast, the sovereign “protects and serves.” Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well. Certainly the Chinese government, for instance, thinks that it exists to serve its citizens, even if we might often disagree about how it does so.

In short, having the definition of sovereignty under international law finally take a step toward the responsibility of all governments under universal human rights law and their own constitutions to refrain from committing gross and systematic crimes against their own citizens is hardly a revolutionary step. The crucial point here is that to understand the R2P conception of sovereignty, you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. I’m not being flip, really. It’s just that you have to understand sovereignty as at once a government’s control of a defined territory and population and as a particular relationship between a government and its citizens. International law still upholds and safeguards a a government’s power and control over its citizens, including its right to invoke states of emergency and use force to maintain domestic order. But it also now protects the citizens of a particular state when their government fails grossly in its obligations toward them.

I think this is a pretty fair description of the trend in thinking among international law scholars in Western liberal democracies.  But Slaughter knows that some rather major countries, like China and Russia and maybe India, are far from signing on to the definition of sovereignty she offers here. So it is far from a description of where international law “is” at the moment. But it is fair to say that it is where many influential folks (like herself) think international law is headed.  And she might be right.

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